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My "North Country"

>> Monday, December 14, 2009

Everyone who loves the "North Country" of New York has a different notion of what the "North Country" is geographically. 

I have colleagues who are from Pulaski, and to them that constitutes the North Country.  Pulaski doesn't seem far enough north to me - it's too close to a real airport to feel remote enough - although anyone who's been there during salmon run can attest that it's a completely different universe from Syracuse.

Watertown feels way too developed to constitute "North Country", but it certainly has its own personality, too. 

People who live in the Adirondacks surely think of the Adirondacks as the North Country, but while I deeply love the cool, green, rocky, woodsy, mountainousness of the Adirondacks, I don't know them well enough to feel like they're home.  (At least not yet).

So what's my North Country, then?  Not that you can read the map below, but it roughly shows it.  The red tag is in Canton, where I lived for a while.  It stretches northeast to Massena, south into the Adirondack foothills, southwest along Route 11 and over to the St. Lawrence River.

My husband grew up outside of Canton, in Rensselaer Falls (pronounced "Rensler" if you're from there), and his father's family goes back generations in the Ogdensburg area.  That area is so far north that, when my husband tells non-North Country people where he's from, the inevitable response is, "Wow.  That's practically in Canada, eh?"

Spouse and I were up in our North Country this past weekend.  We go annually for a fundraising event at the Remington Museum in Ogdensburg (more on that later).  The photos are from Sunday, which was leaden-skied and grim, pouring down cold, uninteresting rain.  And yet the landscape still made my heart ache.  I miss the area so much.

So what is it about our North Country that my husband and I love so much?  We contemplated on our way home whether our love for the North Country is just a golden glow effect created by time and distance and our missing simpler days, rather than an accurate reflection of reality.

There's no question that the North Country can be an unforgiving place to live.  For farmers, trying to scrape a living out of the thin soils and short growing season must be brutally hard.  There is an incredible amount of poverty, and few good employers (hence our reason for not being where we really want to be).  Abandoned homes pepper the landscape, and the houses with good siding tend to be the exception rather than the norm.  Tyvek and plywood are more common exteriors than vinyl siding.

Some of the most sound homes are Amish, and they pepper the countryside with horses and buggies, and dark, all solid colored clothing drying on the line.

The landscape is breathtaking, and the sky is huge.  I have never seen stars like I've seen in the North Country. 

People are more in touch with life cycles and weather and land and growing seasons in the North Country.  As Barbara Kingsolver observed in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about her farming community in Virginia, kids in the North Country grow up knowing vegetables come from dirt.  The woods and fields and hills are so close that it's just natural to go for walks or cross-country skiing when there's spare time.

Winters are long, hard and cold.  But those long, hard winters draw people together in remarkable ways.  People have something to commiserate about, for one thing.  But for another, people seem to look out for each other more up there.

By way of example, back when I lived there, on a particularly blizzardy winter day I hit black ice and slid gracefully off the road into a ditch.  By the time I'd gotten my car door open and stepped out into the hip high snow, a rather rough young man, perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s, had already stopped to help.  He emerged from his big, beat up, diesel all-wheel-drive pick-up truck with a snow shovel in hand, and helped me dig out.  He then hooked up chains to my car, winched me from the ditch, and I was ready to be on my way again in less than 1/2 hour's time.

As this kind gentleman was getting back into his truck, I thanked him and told him I hoped I hadn't made him late for anything.  He just chuckled and shook his head.  "Nah.  I'm lucky enough to have this great big truck, and the way I figure, it's least I can do to drive around in storms and pull people out of where they're stuck.  I'm just on my way to the next person that's got stuck." 

Huh.  A North Country version of noblesse oblige.

That kind of neighborliness highlights what I found in the North Country.  Oh, sure, the North Country has snotty people and rich people and uppity people and rude people.  It's got broken homes and just plain mean people, too. 

But I found overall that I knew who my neighbors were, and I liked it.  I knew who was going for cancer treatments for the second time, and who just lost his job and needed coats for the kids but couldn't afford them.  I knew who had raspberries they'd be happy to let me pick so long as I picked them some while I was at it.  I knew all the teenaged boys in the neighborhood, and which ones needed a little extra guidance and an occasional breakfast because they didn't get it at home.  I had neighbors who snow blowed out my driveway for me, and strangers who brought our cat home when he got lost (everybody recognized that cat  - he was so big he was unmistakable).  Going to the grocery store was a mighty long affair, because I would run into at least 15 people I knew, and had to have a long chat with the cashier about her straying boyfriend while she was checking me out. 

We rooted for each other.  We wanted the local businesses to succeed and did our best to help them.

The pace of life in the North Country was just plain slower.  Life in Syracuse, in contrast, seems harder, and sharper.  I know a lot of people here, too, and like some of them more than I can express, but the overall atmosphere is more harsh.  Drivers are more aggressive, and the strangers are less friendly on the street. 

I love my little village outside of Syracuse, and it's a bit closer to North Country living just because it's a small town, but it isn't the same.  No place else can quite capture that North Country feeling, and I never manage to achieve that slower pace of life here.  I like having to stop on my way home for wild turkeys and even free-range chickens and pet ducks to cross the road in front of me.

As my husband and I were driving back to our current home discussing all this, we reached the conclusion that there is something different and special about life in the North Country.  It's not for everyone, but we'll keep working to pay off law school debts in the hopes of one day returning to the spot that feels so much like home.  Every time we have to leave it feels like a slow wrenching away, and we're sad that we can't snap our fingers and be back there.  We reaffirmed that we'll keep hoping and trying to move back, some day.

Then, after discussing all we love about the North Country, we stopped along the side of the icy road to snap a few last pictures on our way back.  A pick-up truck pulled over in front of us, and backed up to where we were parked.  In Syracuse I might have been suspicious, but not in Oxbow.  It was just a nice North Country man on his way back home, stopping to check on us and make sure we didn't need any help.

Nope.  We aren't imagining it.  The North Country really is a more neighborly sort of place, and it sure was nice to be home, for however short a visit.


Sneaksleep December 14, 2009 at 11:34 PM  

I've only ever made brief stops in that area, never lived there, but you still managed to make me nostalgic for it!

Ellen Rathbone December 15, 2009 at 11:13 AM  

Yes, we are indeed a more neighborly place: if someone doesn't show up where s/he routinely does, someone will stop by her/his house to make sure s/he is still alive; the town plows the snow piles from the ends of our driveways (always appreciated); the town crew will build garden beds for the community garden. On the other hand, if you do the wrong thing, the whole community knows it and the gossip mills love to run. It can be very exciting in a small rural town.

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